Mixed Signals: Artists Consider Masculinity in Sports

Through Oct. 23, Ezra and Cecile Silkha Gallery, Center for the Arts, Wesleyan University, 283 Washington Terrace, Middletown, (860) 685-2695, wesleyan.edu/cfa


Jock versus Nerd is a recurrent American conflict, up there with Hatfield v. McCoy and Wile E. Coyote v. Roadrunner. What, then, could be more "jock-y" than super-macho football players or more "nerdy" than sensitive artists? A new exhibition at Wesleyan University's Ezra and Cecile Silkha Gallery, Mixed Signals: Artists Consider Masculinity in Sports, brings these two seemingly exclusive camps together, with unusual and (uh) mixed results.

This paradox is seen in the work of Shaun El C. Leonardo, a former college-football star who's now a Queens-based artist. His contribution, "Bull in the Ring," is a two-pronged attempt to reenact and recreate the feeling of super-intense masculine athletics. "Bull in the Ring" is a dangerous, now-banned football practice drill in which one player is circled by several others and, at random, is attacked, one by one, from all angles. For his video, Leonardo — still in excellent physical shape long after his football career ended — suited up and acted as the "bull" with a squad of younger, gung-ho college players forming the "ring."

"For the video, I took the instinctual realm of sports where masculinity is innate and placed performance on top of it," he explained in a recent interview with the Hartford Advocate. "Macho ritual is learned, rehearsed and performed cultural behavior. 'Bull in the Ring' is a metaphor for how we construct our lives, with people attacking from every angle, even blindsiding us."

Though the drill was intended to promote team unity, Leonardo noticed it had the adverse effect of "isolating the weak." In the video, he himself is pummeled repeatedly, spending more time writhing on the ground than on his feet. "In 'Bull,' you prove yourself as a man by surviving and if you survive you become a leader," he says. "Group camaraderie is in conflict with the individual need to be superior. This is the duality of macho."

The other "star player" in the show is photographer Catherine Opie, whose work seems to echo the appeal of Friday Night Lights. In her "Football Landscape" series, her large color images capture random moments in high-school football games around the country. The settings change but the archetypes are the same. One photograph from Alaska is particularly powerful, with evergreen trees looming in the gloaming, adding to the drama of young men poised to inflict pain. In individual portraits of players, Opie doesn't treat them like generic jocks; rather, she supplies names and gives these young men the fragility of deer caught in headlights. Yes, they are muscle-bound, the photos seem to say, but they are closer to being little boys than big men. Indeed, looking at all the uniformed players in Mixed Signals, one can't help thinking of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, thousand-yard stares coming from 20-year-old faces.

The best-known artist in the show is filmmaker Matthew Barney, a Yale grad acclaimed for his enigmatic Cremaster series. Two of his films, Cremaster 4 (1994) and Drawing Restraint (2005), will be shown at the nearby Center for Film Studies on Sept. 27 at 7:30.